The body in pain (PoemTalk #91)

Gil Ott, 'The Forgotten'

From left to right: Jenn McCreary, Pattie McCarthy, Frank Sherlock


Jenn McCreary, Frank Sherlock, and Pattie McCarthy joined Al Filreis in the Wexler Studio of the Kelly Writers House to discuss a poem by Gil Ott. The poem is called “The Forgotten” and it was published in Public Domain of 1989. PennSound’s recording of the poem comes from a performance at the Ear Inn in New York City on February 19, 1989. In No Restraints (an anthology of writings about disability culture), Gil Ott’s contribution is about invisible disability. Pattie notes that “The Forgotten” enacts this notion, especially at the beginning when it “points so much to the interior” of sourceless hurt, of forgotten wound. The “wound too great to finish telling.” The disappearing pain opens the poem and opens up the stanza. Jenn sees that the way Ott moves around in the four stanzas of the poem explains in part what he means by the phrase “the illness moves,” and in the discussion she closely tracks that sort of movement. Ott is in control of the way the poem moves, from idea to idea, trope to trope and, crucially, sound to sound (and kind of sound), but what he’s saying ultimately is that he is unable to discern the origin of that constant discomfort which makes such control possible.

Frank takes this point and looks in turn at the poem’s unmistakable references to place and neighborhood and the forces that make one move — at, in short, displacement (as in: “being wheeled to a poor neighborhood”). This reading connects disability and personal pain with the world as it can be perceived by such a subjectivity. “Not only that the personal is political,” Frank observes, “but the physical is the political.” And: “There’s a gentrifying force that is the illness.” Pattie then supports Frank’s reading by taking us through words and forms of inwardness at the beginning of the poem and following shifts toward a vocabulary of out, opening, spreading, and externality.

The three PoemTalkers (and also their host) are all long-time Philadelphia people, and this episode ends with a series of observations about the lasting effects of Gil Ott’s community work — in the beyond-academic world of arts organizations; in the local small-press publishing world; in the network of advocacy for people with disabilities — and on the ways in which his interlocking commitments can be read in the poems. “Hard” here is not just “difficult,” as it is mostly or solely in some avant-garde poetry, but hard is hardened or beat, as in the effect of experiencing life’s day-to-day difficulties. “A chorus of hard comparisons” is a concept challenging any easy linguistic likening yet affirming the democracy of song.

PoemTalk’s episode #91 was engineered by Zach Carduner and Tyler Burke and was edited by Amaris Cuchanski. This is the last episode Amaris will edit (at least for now) and we at PoemTalk and the Writers House want to express our gratitude to her and are gladder than merely glad that as she begins her career as a teacher she will continue to be associated with us through our free and open online course called “ModPo.” Thank you, Amaris!

(Photo above at right: Gil Ott, second from right, wearing his “Not Dead Yet” t-shirt at the October 2001 Ott celebration held at the Kelly Writers House.)

The fuck-you bow (PoemTalk #90)

Gertrude Stein, 'How She Bowed to Her Brother'


Maxe Crandall, Julia Bloch, and Sarah Dowling joined Al Filreis to talk about Gertrude Stein’s “How She Bowed to Her Brother.” It was written in late 1931. The text can be found in A Gertrude Stein Reader, edited by Ulla Dydo (564). On PennSound’s Gertrude Stein page, which has been edited and annotated by Dydo, one can hear a recording of Stein performing the first section of the three-section poem. The recording was done in 1934, during Stein’s visit to New York that year.

Stein here experimented with the period as a punctuation mark, using it sometimes as one would a comma and at other times when conventionally no punctuation at all would appear. So the reading (aloud — but also, we think, it’s the case with silent reading) is typified by frequent disruptive pauses and stops, adding to the already strong effect of fragmentation. Above from left to right: Sarah Dowling, Julia Bloch, Maxe Crandall.

“This is a poem that is interested in relationships as performance,” observes Maxe. The bow, all four PoemTalkers agreed, was a gesture of theater that can be interpreted any number of ways. Gertrude Stein either did or did not bow to her brother, Leo Stein, as they encountered passing views of each other accidentally in Paris traffic one day many years after the sister and brother, just two years apart, had had a permanent falling out. The ambivalence of the gesture in the Stein biography — Maxe observes, as author of an in-progress biographical study of Stein and men — is amplified in the poem. The frequent use of the period only adds to the ambiguity of each restatement of the bow in the poem.

Sarah offers a reading of several lines of the poem in which it seems clear that there was some reciprocality in the bowing. Al naively wonders whether a bow can be ironic, and then, with quick unanimity, the group affirms that indeed there can be what Al dubs a “fuck-you bow.” Julia reminds us that there is “another brother” in the poem (Maxe helps us identify this as Michael Stein), such that soon it is not even clear which brother is being doubted. “All of a sudden,” Julia notes, “I get the impression of all these people, in the scene.” The bowing of Gertrude to Leo “is modernist silence because it’s a modernist moment. It’s Paris, in the 1930s!”

Toward the end of the discussion we attempt to make sense of what Stein calls in this poem a “union between reading and learning.” Sarah wonders if Stein is lamenting the situation: if reading and learning have converged, “now everyone reads but no one thinks.” Stein might be looking back fondly at a prelapsarian moment (with family as a touchstone or analogy or metaphor of relationship but also a relational literality) when there was “an intense bond that was taking place between reading and learning” deeply inside the Stein family — and no separation, in this ideal mode, between intellectual functions.

After Sarah offers this reading of the poem’s marking the significance of the break in the family, Al pushes toward a psychoanalytic reading of early, premodern unindividuated or unalienated intellection, a phase the end of which is signaled by the open gestural bowing. Yet, as Sarah notes, as much as that prelapsarian ideal familial connection was precious, Stein needed to mark the distance in order to continue to develop as an artist on her own — she needed, in short, to stop bowing to her brothers. There are as many ways to see in this poem that Stein did not bow to her brother as ways that she did.

This ninetieth episode of PoemTalk was recorded and engineered by Zach Carduner and Tyler Burke and edited by Amaris Cuchanski. Please subscribe to PoemTalk in iTunes. If you subscribe, you will automatically get each new PoemTalk as it appears monthly.

Requiem so sweet we forgot what it lamented (PoemTalk #89)

Nathaniel Mackey, 'Day after Day of the Dead'


Tsitsi Jaji, Herman Beavers, and William J. Harris joined Al Filreis in the new Wexler Studio at the Kelly Writers House to discuss a poem by Nathaniel Mackey, “Day after Day of the Dead” (text).  The poem appears about a third of the way through Mackey’s book Nod House (New Directions, 2011). As is typical of Mackey’s work, especially in recent years, the book includes poems that are individually new installments in one of two ongoing long poems, one called “Mu” and another called Song of the Andoumboulou.” Our poem is the 48th part of the “Mu” series, and it follows immediately after the 68th “Song of the Andoumboulou.” Our recording of “Day after Day of the Dead” comes from a “Close Listening” show hosted by Charles Bernstein at the Kelly Writers House in February 2011, some six months before Nod House was published. 

Tsitsi comments on the appearance and also the disappearance of the “we.” Billy Joe reads “we” as lovers, at points, but wonders what traumatic break this “we” has endured here. Disaster of some sort. A flood? (Tsitsi mentions New Orleans.) An attack? (There are references to the 2004 Madrid bombings earlier in the book.) Herman suggests that the collective journey could remind one of the Middle Passage. This for him partly explains why the ensemble in the poem no longer wants to know what soul was. “You actually try to forget what soul is,” Herman offers, “so it cannot be taken from you.” All agree that the speaker and his cohort or “philosophical posse” are survivors of some sort, and that the poem is marked by the effort at witnessing and testifying to others’ deaths and (for the speaker and his colleagues) one’s own near-death. They eat with great appetite — glad to be bodies, glad to be alive — yet the repast is morbid (“knucklebone soufflé” is on the menu).

There’s so much more to discuss: echoes of The Waste Land and in them a “response to modernist formalism”; changes that occur as they do in a jazz solo; “Mu” as a rudiment of MUsic; “the collective thinking one has to engage in if you are an ensemble of musicians”; art as a response to scarcity; the pure poetry of drones and hisses; Mu as the epic story of humanity; the poetics of reprise; certain kinds of wholeness that are not available to us; and making something positive or at least productive out of “discrepant engagement.”

PoemTalk #89 was directed and engineered by Zach Carduner and Tyler Burke, was produced by Al Filreis, and edited by Amaris Cuchanski. You can find PoemTalk at Jacket2 of course, but also in iTunes. If you subscribe to podcasts, please subscribe to ours.

Gabriel Ojeda-Sague interviews Emji Spero

PennSound podcast #50

Emji Spero
Emji Spero


Emji Spero, an Oakland-based artist and poet exploring the intersections of writing, book art, installation, and performance, visited Philadelphia and the Kelly Writers House in April 2015 to talk about their book almost any shit will do, which uses found language from mycelial studies, word-replacement, and erasure to map the boundaries of collective engagement. Spero is a cofounder and editor of the “art-cult” Timeless, Infinite Light and has described their books as “spells for unraveling capitalism.”

In this interview at the Wexler Studio, Spero spoke with Gabriel Ojeda-Sague, a poet living in Philadelphia and author of the chapbooks JOGS (Lulu, 2013) and Nite [chickadee]’s (GaussPDF, 2015), about personal trauma, queer longing, surveillance states, public/private access, the Baltimore riots, and a new work on violence as the static and quotidian. The interview concludes with a ten-minute collaborative reading by both poets from almost any shit will do.

An interview with William J. Harris

PennSound podcast #49, with an introduction by Harris

William J. Harris with Susan Harris, 1969.


This interview tracks my genesis and early development as a poet and intellectual. My artistic and cultural education occurs during the late 50s, the 60s and the early 70s and takes place primarily in and around academic institutions: the liberal college, Antioch, which is in my hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio, and the nearby black state university, Central State, in Wilberforce, and the story, if not exactly concluding, comes to “a momentary stay against confusion” at Stanford University in Northern California where I did my MA in creative writing and a PhD in English.

My main education came mostly from students, not professors, because the students were in contact with what was happening in the culture. This was the time of the New American Poetry, the postwar avant-garde movement, and free jazz, the radical new black music. Even though I was not a student there the students at Antioch and what I read there taught me about the New American Poetry and at Central I learned a little about free jazz. Well, heard it anyway. Listening to it with a group of black militant students, I found it incoherent; they didn’t. It would take me years to make sense of it. Also at Central I met the future black philosopher Leonard Harris — no relation — who not only became a prominent black philosopher but was one of pioneers of the emerging field of black philosophy. At both Antioch and Central I edited student literary magazines, Trinculo at Antioch and Gem at Central. At Stanford my understanding of the New American Poetry and experimental writing deepened: not only by my talking with fellow students and Al Young but also by meeting the black novelist, Ishmael Reed. There I was associated with the black student magazine, Brilliant Corners, named after a Thelonious Monk tune and edited by Bob O’Meally, an undergraduate. Among others it published Nate Mackey, Robert Stepto, Al Young, Jon Eckels, Johnie Scott and me.   

Even though I had wonderful teachers, including the poet Wendell Berry, the modernist poetry scholar, Al Gelpi and poet-critic Donald Davie, once again most of my real schooling came from the students. Nate Mackey, now a major poet, Bob O’Meally, now a major jazz scholar, and the amazing Al Young taught me about jazz. Al wasn’t actually a student but a Jones Lecturer, a teaching fellow at Stanford, but he hung out with us. As important to my jazz education as these folks was one book, Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, which I read in 1967 in Yellow Springs simply because I was reviewing it for the liberal journal, The Antioch Review. It became my bible and I knew it well before I knew the music well. My Stanford friends helped complicate its story. At Stanford my understanding of the New American Poetry and experimental writing deepened. Not only by talking with fellow students and Al Young, but also meeting the black novelist Ishmael Reed. Al Young being our literary ambassador had introduced us to him. After hearing Reed read I remember a fellow black graduate student — I think, Fred Johnson — say, “I want to write like that, not like Richard Wright. I am sick of naturalism.” Ish opened up new worlds for us. And so did his experimental multicultural lit magazine, Yardbird Reader. “Yardbird” is the nickname for famous bebop saxophonist, Charlie Parker. (The journals’ titles, Brilliant Corners and Yardbird Reader, reflect the centrality of the music to the literature.) The Reader published such people as Jeffery Paul Chan, Amiri Baraka, Nate Mackey, Anne Waldman, Jay Wright, Simon Ortiz, and me. Reed was from that other world — Berkeley — where black writers wrote wild stuff and college students got involved in tear gas-filled uprisings. I hope my encounters with these times, the shifting social and political attitudes, the people, the New American Poetry, the New Black Writing, bop, post-bop and free jazz, will throw some light on them for both me and the listener. I certainly wasn’t the center or at the center, but I have lived through some important cultural and social moments.